Affairs of the Heart
written by Sugarberry

Saying goodnight to her date, Chocolate Chip closed the apartment door and slumped on the couch. Admittedly, she had enjoyed her evening out. Xavier was a pleasant companion who could brighten an otherwise dreary work day with his lighthearted humor and ready wit.

Chocolate Chip leaned her head back against the cushions, smiling as she thought back to how the two of them had become friends simply because their schedules had put them on the same path every morning and most evenings. After discovering that they lived at the same apartment complex and worked less than a block away from one another, it had become a regular routine for them to walk to their respective offices together in the morning and, when agendas allowed it, to return home in one another’s company after work as well.

It was very agreeable to have someone she could call a friend, Chocolate Chip realized. New Pony was a fast-paced, exciting city, but she missed companionship. She grimaced as she remembered her last months in Dream Valley when she had been too busy to spend time with her dear friends; and now, when she would have loved to share her experiences with someone, she had no one with whom to talk.

It was true that her good friend, Prime, lived in the city and had provided introductions to places and ponies that expanded her horizons; but Prime was busy with his own responsibilities and was seldom available for a companionable visit to hash over the events that impacted Chocolate Chip.

Her supervisor at work, Fabia, was all business; and her associate on current projects, Tarn, was amiable enough but with a reserve that allowed for no true sharing of confidences. Xavier, on the other hoof, had come into her life and made her transition to her new home much more pleasurable.

Xavier, too, had come to the city from a small town, although he had been living in New Pony now for several years. His advice and guidance on what places to avoid and where the best shops and eating places were to be found had spared the mare some unpleasant and costly encounters. And all of this wisdom wrapped in an attractive package with a warm and witty personality was a veritable treasure to a lonely mare in the big city. She was very comfortable with the direction her life was taking.

Yet, Chocolate Chip admitted to herself, a recent occurrence had pointed out to her quite clearly that the past still held her in its grip.

* * *

It had been a complete surprise to find that Wigwam was with Vanguard, Sugarberry, and Banderol when they stopped in New Pony on their way home from Vulcanopolis. Chocolate Chip had promised to take her Dream Valley friends out to dinner when she had learned they would be passing through New Pony at the end of their Vulcanopolis vacation, but she had no inkling that Wigwam had joined their entourage.

The chocolate brown mare vividly remembered the moment she had seen Wigwam in her friends’ company when they had walked into the predesignated restaurant where she awaited them. It was as if her life had suddenly regained something special that had been missing. Wigwam had merely caught her eye and grinned, and she had been uplifted and revitalized, as if a healing tonic had been applied to an open wound that she had not known existed. It had been difficult not to throw herself into his forelegs.

As refreshing as it was, their time together had been all too brief as travel connections to Dream Valley had to be met. Conversation over dinner had centered around the unbelievable story of Banderol and Calla’s abduction and the subsequent rescue. When that tale had been thoroughly discussed, the interest had turned to Chocolate Chip’s own adventures in her new life in the city, Xavier being the one fact that she omitted to share- she did not want to explain this new relationship or face recrimination.

Only afterwards did Chocolate Chip realize that Wigwam had seemed preoccupied... almost reserved and out of her reach. He had been polite and considerate, but she had not seemed to hold his attention as in the past.

In a perverse way, Chocolate Chip was disappointed that he no longer hassled her about her feelings for him. She had been left with a deep sense of loss and found herself mentally berating the impertinent Bittersweet who was obviously scheming her way into Wigwam’s life and heart. The pretty mocha unicorn had inveigled herself into a prominent position in Wigwam’s life, if the number of times her name had come up in the stallion’s conversation was any indication. Chocolate Chip would not have him, but she still felt a proprietorial hold on him that allowed no interference. It rankled that his affection could so easily be transferred to another.

Chocolate Chip would have been unsettled to hear the discussion which took place after her Dream Valley friends left her company.

* * *

“You were baiting the poor girl!” Sugarberry chided Wigwam.

“Excuse me?” Wigwam negligently drawled.

“You know what I mean,” Sugarberry snapped. “Your saccharine manner devoid of any real sentiment... as if you were no more than an acquaintance to Chocolate Chip.”

Wigwam gave it some thought. “As I recall, I behaved very properly for a spurned lover,” he finally defended. “Besides, I was only putting Tabby’s advice to work. Let’s see... how did that go? Give Chocolate Chip plenty of space to follow her dream without making her feel guilty, I believe was the gist of it.”

Sugarberry glared at the stallion. “From my point of view, I’m sure you made her feel very guilty indeed, as if you had no interest in her at all anymore.”

“I’ve told her often enough in the past, Sugarberry. She is not unaware of my feelings.”

“But she’ll question them now- and don’t pretend that wasn’t your goal. The way you portrayed Bittersweet as your irreplaceable helpmate must certainly have rattled her!”

Wigwam looked to Vanguard for help. “I’m in a tough spot here, Van. Chocolate Chip has repeatedly rejected me, and Tabby has advised that I respect her wishes. Now your beautiful wife tells me I’ve erred in accepting my nebulous fate. What am I to do?”

Vanguard took the coward’s way out. “Don’t expect any advice from me. The only mare I’ve ever loved accepted my proposal forthwith. Therefore, I have no words of wisdom to give you, as I have no experience as a spurned lover.”

Wigwam snorted. “The only reason Sugarberry said yes to your proposal is that you delayed asking for so long that when you finally did pop the question, she took pity on your lack of confidence. But that’s beside the point,” Wigwam winked at Sugarberry. “What matters now is that Chocolate Chip realizes that I accept our separate lives. She’s free of any encumbrances I may have shackled her with. And I’m free to do as I please as well.”

“And what do you do if Bittersweet misreads your attention to her?” Sugarberry wanted to know.

“Trust me, Sugarberry. I can handle Bittersweet.”

* * *

“Wigwam!” Bittersweet flung her forelegs around the stallion the minute she saw him, which was about five minutes after the travelers had arrived back in Dream Valley. “I’m so glad you’re back!”

Sugarberry rolled her eyes.

“I’m glad to be back, with a welcome like that,” Wigwam chuckled, returning the mare’s hug before asking, “Have there been problems with the Native Dreams’ construction?”

“Oh, Wigwam, you wouldn’t believe what the workers have tried to get away with since you’ve been gone! I’ve had to keep a constant eye on things, and now Gambrel tells me that he’ll have to set back his part in the finish work because of a complication on another project. What are we going to do?” The mare nearly wailed.

Wigwam smiled over Bittersweet’s head at Sugarberry and Vanguard. “It’s nice to be needed.”

Sugarberry nearly growled at his insouciant reference to Chocolate Chip’s carefully cultivated reserve in his presence as compared to Bittersweet’s carefree abandon. “You’d better handle things, then,” she griped. Then, as Banderol wriggled in her forelegs, she softened. “Oh, Wigwam, I should be thanking you yet again for rushing off to help us regain Banderol!” She gave the stallion a hug that rivaled Bittersweet’s. “You’re the greatest!”

“At the risk of sounding redundant, she’s right,” Vanguard added, rescuing Banderol from the embrace that threatened to smother the foal. “Thanks, buddy.”

“What’s this all about?” demanded Bittersweet, suddenly forgetting her problems with Native Dreams. “Why did you rush off the way you did, Wigwam?”

Throwing a foreleg around each of the mares, Wigwam directed them down the street. “Well, Bittersweet, it was like this...”

Vanguard looked at Banderol and shrugged before following.

* * *

As the days settled back into a routine, Wigwam became aware that Bittersweet had kept a close eye on the construction ponies- to the point that all of the workers now cringed whenever the mocha unicorn appeared on the site; and, Finial, the contractor, tried to become invisible. It would take days- maybe even weeks- to smooth their ruffled feathers, but it would take isolating Bittersweet from the construction site, at least for a few days, to accomplish it. Wigwam aimed at her heart.

“I haven’t seen Teepee since I got back; I presume he’s buried in work out at the Native Pony excavations?” he angled.

Bittersweet snorted. “He could be in Timbuktu for all I know. And what’s more, I don’t even care! I’ve had more important things to do than worry about your brother.”

“Hmm,” Wigwam reflected. “Maybe I should walk out there this afternoon. Who knows? He could have fallen into a ravine or got caught in a landslide or...”

“Wigwam! You don’t really think that’s what happened, do you?” The mare looked aghast. “Maybe we should go out there right now!”

“What about the review of the blueprints you wanted...”

“Wigwam! This is your brother we’re talking about! Certainly he’s more important than any blueprints!”

Seeming to ponder that assertion, Wigwam finally concurred. “You’re right. Let’s pack a lunch and a first aid kit and head out.”

* * *

The weather was warm and the mosquitoes were nasty, but Wigwam and Bittersweet made good time in getting to the hilly encampment where Teepee spent most of his time since coming to Dream Valley and taking on the job of Operations Manager for the reclaiming and study of the Native Pony village that had once nestled in the valley beyond the earlier discovered cave site. The closer they got, the more nervous Bittersweet became as she allowed her imagination to construct all sorts of scenarios that centered around the broken and bruised body of Teepee.

She was nearly undone, however, when she and Wigwam reached the lush valley, looking down from the hillside, their presence undetected by the ponies who were working that day. Clever Clover was there, as were Digger and Ages. What held Bittersweet’s attention was a grouping to the side where she could make out the blue stallion who had worried her to distraction for the past hour.

He was definitely not in any state of trouble or harm; on the contrary, he was obviously quite content and comfortable sharing a mid-morning break with Buttercrunch and another mare whom Bittersweet had not seen for several years- Lillooet, a native pony she had met in college and not spared a thought of since the older mare had graduated and moved on.

“What’s she doing here?” Bittersweet spat, tossing her long tangerine mane over her shoulder and taking a stance that indicated extreme displeasure.

“Who is she?” Wigwam asked, foreseeing more problems in the already rocky history of his brother and Bittersweet.

“She,” Bittersweet hissed, “is a...” She stopped guiltily, then continued. “I don’t like her.”

“Why not?” queried Wigwam as he studied the soft pink mare, a hint of her golden curls peaking from under a wide-brimmed hat. The trill of her laughter wafted across the space between them as she responded to something Teepee had said.

Bittersweet cast a peevish look in Wigwam’s direction. “She’s... she’s... too blasted perfect!”

“And that’s why you don’t like her?”

“She always got the highest grades, she won the most prestigious awards, she instigated all the charity projects, she always has a smile, and she never has a hair out of place... and she’s so pretty.” Bittersweet recited the litany with venom in her voice.

“Well, it’s understandable that you’d dislike her then,” Wigwam imparted with a grin. “Why don’t you introduce us?”

“Harumph!” was all Bittersweet could come up with as the two ponies crossed the distance to where Teepee, Buttercrunch, and Lillooet sat.

Teepee got to his hooves as soon as he caught sight of the new arrivals. “So you’re back in town,” he directed at his brother with barely a glance at Bittersweet. “Was your trip for business or pleasure?”

“A little of both,” Wigwam admitted before acknowledging Buttercrunch and settling his gaze on Lillooet.

“You two don’t know one another?” queried Buttercrunch.

“We’ve never had the pleasure of an introduction,” drawled Wigwam.

Buttercrunch took care of that oversight. “Lillooet, this is Wigwam, Teepee’s brother and owner of the casino in town. Wigwam, Lillooet is doing research for a magazine article on the Native Pony culture and is here to see first-hoof what this site has to offer.”

Hearing the name of the pony for the first time, Wigwam was enlightened. “Lillooet, what a pleasure to meet you; I just finished reading your article in Chronicles on the post-Atlantean culture; your theory on the migration of ponies was quite fascinating.”

“I’m pleased you found it so,” Lillooet smiled. Her gaze shifted to Bittersweet. “And Bittersweet... it’s been awhile.”

The smile on Lillooet’s face never faltered, but a distinct cooling definitely took place as she and Bittersweet met eye to eye. As much as Bittersweet found Lillooet’s personality too sweet and cloying and perfect, so did Lillooet find Bittersweet’s spontaneous, devil-may-care attitude to be highly enviable. The mocha unicorn had befriended every pony with whom she came in contact without even trying, unlike Lillooet’s well-choreographed finesse at ingratiating other ponies to her. Neither would admit their respect for the other’s attributes, however.

“You’ve been making a name for yourself,” Bittersweet bit out, wishing she would have chosen a more becoming hat for herself to wear rather than the faded and well-worn visor she had clamped over her curls. The visor suited work at the dig site, but it did nothing to compete with the tulle-trimmed confection that rested on Lillooet’s well-shaped head.

A bit of cattiness crept into the mare’s voice as she responded to Bittersweet’s veiled compliment, belying her persona of perfection. “And your name, Bittersweet; have you been able to buff off the tarnish?”

“I may have gotten myself into some scrapes, Lil, but I learned from each experience. Life lived has substance.”

To forestall the extension of claws, Wigwam suggested, “Lillooet, I’d be delighted to hear your impressions of the paintings in the cave.” He nodded toward the gaping entrance in the side of the hill.

Granting the stallion a beatific smile as if she and Bittersweet had not just engaged in a subtle duel of words, Lillooet purred, “Maybe you’d like to view them with me while we discuss their place in history.”

Wigwam offered the mare a foreleg, and together the two ponies moved off to continue their conversation. Bittersweet glared after them, her anger apparent.

Watching her, Teepee could only surmise that jealousy was the root of the unicorn’s problem, imagining her unwilling to share Wigwam even for a moment... and with such a well-endowed mare. All well and good, the stallion decided. He had suffered more than his share from the green-eyed monster; let Bittersweet suffer a bit, too. It would be good for her.

Then why, he questioned himself, do I want to take her in my forelegs and kiss away that pain?

The thought shook him. Bittersweet was romantically interested in his brother and would be scandalized to find that he- Teepee- considered her to be the answer to all his own private dreams, the perfect mate that he had been hoping to find. The stallion shook his head. Life was not fair. It was with a scowl that he barked, “Buttercrunch, you and I better get back to work.” If he wore himself to a frazzle, maybe he would not feel so desperate.

* * *

“I thought I was doing everyone a favor by putting together this little impromptu dinner at the casino,” griped Wigwam as he faced an irate unicorn later in the day. “You especially should appreciate the opportunity to spend some time with Teepee.”

“To what purpose?” Bittersweet fumed. “Lil will be the center of attention; everyone dotes on the mare! Teepee won’t even notice that I’m at the table, and I’ll be stuck watching you two stallions succumb to the irresistible, talented, smart, and successful Lillooet.”

Wigwam grinned. “You’re all those things, too.”

“But I’m not perfect! And if I’m so irresistible, why doesn’t your brother know that I exist?”

The mare looked so forlorn that Wigwam gave her a hug. “I tell you what. I’ll dominate Lillooet’s time tonight so that Teepee has to pay attention to you. I’m sure you’ll be able to beguile yourself into his heart.” He kissed the tip of her nose teasingly just as the door opened- and Teepee and Lillooet peered in.

“We’re a little early...” Teepee began, but closed his mouth with a snap when he saw how Bittersweet and Wigwam had been spending their time.

“No problem,” Wigwam said. “Our table will be ready when we are.” He moved to accompany Lillooet to the dining room, leaving Bittersweet and Teepee to follow.

Teepee glowered at Bittersweet; and, although he held the door for her, he refrained from speaking with her other than monosyllabic replies to her questions, acting as if he did not want to miss one word that came from Lillooet’s mouth, causing Bittersweet’s mood to spiral even lower. So much for Wigwam’s plan for her to entice Teepee; the stallion despised her. And she despised Lillooet. What a lovely evening this was going to be!

* * *

Hawkley had been spending most of his time in the gaming room, mixing with the patrons and handling some slight problems that had arisen. When things were running smoothly again, he went off to find Garnet to ask her about a pending business trip that was in the planning stages; he found the mare with Wishbone looking out over the lake.

“So this is how you spend your time while on the casino’s payroll?” he intoned in his severest inflection of voice, causing the two ponies to whirl in his direction.

Seeing that it was only Hawkley, Garnet grinned. “I was just telling Wishbone about the fish that were planted in the lake today.”

“And I say the odds are that the raccoon, crayfish, and cranes will decimate the entire bunch,” Hawkley asserted.

“The fish can hide under the lily pads,” countered Garnet.

“Optimist!” teased Wishbone, taking Hawkley’s side.

“Just wait and see. Soon there’ll be big, graceful fish to watch from the gazebo.”

“And a menu item as well,” grinned Hawkley. “But, seriously, did Wigwam get back to you about the conference in Hayton next month?”

“No, but he should have the details by now.”

“Yeah, but I wouldn’t want to interrupt him tonight; Florabelle said he’s entertaining friends.”

“We can at least take a peak in the dining room to see what’s happening,” suggested Garnet, leading the two stallions in that direction. Looking across the dinner crowd, they found that Wigwam was still with his guests across the room. “Who is the pink mare? Do you know?” Garnet asked Hawkley.

Hawkley, just now catching sight of the visiting pony, looked flabbergasted. “What’s that shrew doing in Dream Valley?” he hissed.

Garnet and Wishbone looked sharply at Hawkley. The stallion had a reputation for his self-assured and suave manner; it was disconcerting to hear the bitterness in his voice and see the disgust on his face.

“She doesn’t look like a shrew, Hawkley,” Wishbone noted, looking back across the room to study the mare with the golden hair.

“Trust me, my young friend. Never turn your back on that one.”

“Hawkley, she looks very... respectable,” argued Garnet.

“You haven’t met her yet,” mumbled the stallion. “And when you do, remember that she’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

The golden-haired mare, as if sensing an unwelcome presence, looked up to scan the room; her gaze soon discovered the source of the unfavorable vibes almost visibly emanating from the denim-blue stallion. A very brief look of surprise crossed her face before it was replaced by an appealing smile of recognition. Her reaction was obviously noticed by the others at her table, for Wigwam, Teepee, and Bittersweet were soon looking Hawkley’s way, too.

“I’m out of here!” Hawkley snarled, turning tail and heading for the lakeside exit.

“Where are you going?” queried Garnet in some alarm.

“To count fish.”

“In the dark?”

“It’ll be easier than facing that piranha,” growled the stallion as he disappeared outside.

“Shrew... wolf... piranha...” mused Wishbone. “This mare must be something else.”

“And yet she appears to be everything a mare should be,” Garnet frowned.

“She looks perfect to me,” admitted Wishbone, earning himself a jab in the ribs from his fiancee. “If you like the pallid, wilting-violet type,” Wishbone added in an effort to redeem himself.

* * *

Wishbone and Garnet got their chance to meet the pink mare later as Wigwam prepared to walk Lillooet to her hotel, leaving Teepee to accompany Bittersweet home to Dreamcatcher’s cabin in the Dark Forest. Garnet was instantly aware of Bittersweet’s reserve toward Lillooet, even though Wigwam had mentioned that the two mares’ college years had overlapped.

This uncertainty on Bittersweet’s part plus Hawkley’s earlier assertion that Lillooet was trouble, caused Garnet to look upon her new acquaintance with misgivings; she realized that although Lillooet showed a pleasing smile and said all the right things, there was a disconcerting undercurrent about the mare that made it difficult for Garnet to warm to her as Wishbone, Wigwam, and Teepee obviously had.

After Lillooet and Wigwam had left the casino, Garnet studied Bittersweet’s frowning face. “You’re fortunate to count such a prestigious pony as your friend,” she goaded, curious to hear the unicorn’s honest opinion of Lillooet.

But Garnet was to be disappointed. With no more than a disgruntled, “Ha!” Bittersweet swept out the door. Teepee, with the look of a martyr, shrugged his shoulders and followed in her wake.

* * *

It was hours after Wigwam had delivered Lillooet safely to her hotel room that Hawkley approached his apartment on the east side of town. Memories that he thought he had exorcized whirled through his head, promising him a sleepless night. He was so lost in his reflections that he did not notice the barely discernable shape of a pony in the shadows of the doorway until he could have reached out and touched her.

“Get lost!” he grated as he realized who the pony was.

“Why, Hawkley, that’s not a very friendly greeting,” purred Lillooet.

“We are not friends,” Hawkley reminded her. “Now go back to the hole you crawled out from.”

“Tsk, tsk.” The mare remained firmly planted before Hawkley’s apartment door, denying him the opportunity to physically shut her out. “Is this the fair-spoken and gallant stallion I met in Lakeland several years ago?”

“No, Lillooet, it isn’t. What you see before you is the smarter, if not embittered, version of that stallion. Now, if you will kindly stand aside...”

“Oh, Hawkley, I sensed your animosity when I first saw you at the casino, and I was afraid you were harboring some unfair resentment against me. It might be best if we talked this out... but in the privacy of your place, perhaps?”

“Anything you want to say, you can say right here. Just make it quick.”

“Hawkley,” Lillooet pouted. “I’m at a loss as to understand your harsh feelings toward me.”

A grating laugh erupted from the stallion. “Don’t play the innocent, Lil. It doesn’t suit you. I have the dubious honor of knowing what you’re really like under that facade of honesty and compassion.”

Reaching out to touch the stallion’s foreleg, the mare fretted. “I can’t make things right between us if I don’t understand where you’re coming from.”

Flicking her touch away as if she was a poisonous insect, Hawkley sneered, “Playing dumb isn’t your style, Lil. But if you want to play the game that way, I’ll be blunt so you can grasp what I’m going to say. You cost me that promotion at Graymare Corporation, plain and simple. Your conniving, meddling...”

“Hawkley! What are you getting at?” implored Lillooet. “I had nothing to do with the decisions at Graymare.”

“You expect me to believe it was only coincidence that you were at Graymare when my prospects went down the tubes?”

“The only reason I was there was to drum up grant money for the research project I was working on at the time. That didn’t give me any clout with the...”

Hawkley interrupted. “You’re going to stand here and deny that your feminine wiles weren’t put to use to influence Zarek to promote Ramrod over me regardless of our past work records?”

“You flatter yourself to think that Zarek and I spoke of you at all, Hawkley.” The words were spoken like honey, but their was venom hiding under the surface.

“I’ll admit, Lil, that I never suspected your interference at the time; I was too shocked to lose out on a promising position that had been mine for the taking... and to none other than the loser, Ramrod. You are aware, I’m sure, that he was dismissed after six months of substandard performance.”

“I don’t follow the careers of every pony I meet.”

Hawkley looked at her with pretended awe. “You can say that with a straight face.”

“Just what are you getting at?” Her poise beginning to crumble under the stallion’s unwavering loathsome attitude, Lillooet’s voice was strident.

“Ramrod couldn’t help himself, Lil. Before I left Graymare, he gloated over his success... and my failure. Your name came up.”

“You said yourself he was a loser. Why would you believe anything he told you?”

“Because it explained everything so well. He bragged about earning your undying devotion while the two of you were finishing up your course work at Springwell... something about the work he did for your thesis. And how he called in your debt by having you influence Zarek’s decision on which of us to promote.”

A look of pure hatred twitted across Lillooet’s face. “How dare he?” she seethed. Then, regaining her composure, she gave a toss of her head. “I’m surprised you believed his innuendoes, Hawkley. Surely my reputation speaks more loudly than some... loser’s... opinion.”

“What does it matter? You’re successful, and I found a job I enjoy. Our paths never have to cross again. Just be warned... I will not allow you to ingratiate yourself into Wigwam’s good graces just to further some ulterior motive you have to increase your value on the market.”

You will not allow?” spat Lillooet. “Both Wigwam and Teepee are counting on my publicity to drum-up financing for this Native Pony project of theirs. I don’t think they’d look kindly on any attempt by you to put me in a bad light.” Hawkley tried to comment, but Lillooet continued. “And let me warn you, Hawkley, that if you say one word against me to either of them, I’ll do everything in my power to cut you down a notch or two.”

Infuriatingly, Hawkley grinned. “Well, well... I touched a nerve, did I? How many other secrets do you hide, Lil? How many of your credits and awards are due to someone else’s competence, not your own?”

“I wouldn’t have the prestige I command if I didn’t live off my own talents!”

“But what talents are those, Lil?” The stallion asked in a deceptively soft voice as he reached out to caress a lock of her golden hair.

The mare slapped his hoof away in anger. “How dare you cast aspersions on my character?” she hissed. “I will enjoy bringing you down to the level you deserve!” She glared at him as if he was the most despicable creature she had ever laid eyes on, then went on her way.

Watching her angry departure, Hawkley experienced a moment of doubt over the wisdom of having incurred the mare’s wrath; but that skepticism was short-lived. With a snicker, he admitted to himself that he had long yearned to put the mare in her place; and he found the accomplishment of that goal to be very satisfying indeed.

* * *

It was several days later that Hawkley saw Lillooet again; he was taking some tallies to Wigwam’s office when the door opened and Lillooet emerged with Wigwam close behind her.

“Here’re those figures you wanted,” he said to Wigwam, avoiding Lillooet’s gaze.

“Thanks, Hawkley. Lillooet, this profligate is on my payroll.” Remembering the look of recognition that had passed between these two the evening of the dinner, he asked. “Are the two of you acquainted?” He moved to set Hawkley’s papers on his desk, thus missing the transfer of mutual dislike that shot between the two ponies.

“We’ve met,” admitted Hawkley. “Graymare funded a project for Lillooet while I was still there.” He granted the mare a cold smile.

“You weren’t with Graymare long, were you, Hawkley?” inquired the mare. “Are you comfortable with your position here at the casino?”

“Very comfortable. I look forward to a long, profitable liaison. Now, if the two of you will excuse me, I have some work to attend to.” With a brief nod, Hawkley made himself scarce.

Wigwam looked after the stallion in some surprise; it was unusual for Hawkley not to dally over a pretty face. Well, Wigwam shrugged, so much the better for him.

“Lillooet, shall we be off?” He offered his foreleg to the mare.

Lillooet clamped onto the foreleg possessively. “The sooner, the better.”

* * *

The tour of Pony Pride University had gone well. Lillooet had met with Memoria, the head of the history department, and Tarkington, in charge of the archeology program. Wigwam had even made a point of stopping by Vanguard’s office in the mathematics department to introduce the lovely researcher to his friend; the fact that Lillooet was an author of educational articles on Ponyland history prompted Vanguard to extend a tentative invitation to visit his home and meet his author-wife, the date to be verified once he had conferred with Sugarberry.

Following the campus visit, Wigwam took Lillooet to the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe to experience the ambiance of Dream Valley. Over a banana split for the mare and a chocolate shake for the stallion, the two let their conversation turn to non-historic issues.

“If you and Bittersweet were in college together, did you ever meet her sister, Dreamcatcher?”

“No. I haven’t had the pleasure.” Lillooet concentrated on her banana split so that Wigwam would not see the flash of consternation over the introduction of Bittersweet into the conversation.

“I’ll take you over to Dreamcatcher’s shop at the mall when we’re done here; you’ll enjoy it.”

“That’s the store that will be moving to the casino complex when the construction is done?”

“Yes. Her kiosk is insufficient to display the variety of items that the Native Ponies create. The new Native Dreams shop will fulfill a number of Native Ponies’ dreams.”

“Wigwam,” Lillooet asked suddenly, “are you satisfied with Hawkley’s performance at the casino?” The mare’s eyes were filled with concern.

“Indeed I am,” Wigwam verified readily. “Why do you ask?”

“Oh, nothing, really,” Lillooet stated with a wave of her hoof. “I just sensed... undertones... when I was visiting Graymare.” Seeing the slight withdrawal that her statement had elicited, the mare quickly added, “Not that I put much merit on rumors I hear that may be motivated by envy as much as anything. Zarek, the executive administrator, held Hawkley in high esteem. I was surprised to find that Hawkley had left Graymoor; I’d thought he’d have proved himself indispensable.”

“He has proved himself indispensable... at the casino,” Wigwam stated, ending that particular discussion.

“Oh, look at the darling foals!” Lillooet purred, grabbing at the first thing that came into view in an effort to renew Wigwam’s compassionate impression of her. “Aren’t they adorable?”

Enjoying a girl’s day out, Sugarberry, Tabby, and Tamara came into the ice cream shop with Banderol, Faline, and Hugh, bearing packages with the logos of a number of the mall stores. Faline, the oldest of the foals- now a perky two-year old- assumed a motherly role over her little cousin, Hugh, who was less than two months of age. Banderol, at eight months, adored the little pink unicorn and ignored the tiny colt.

“Are the two adult unicorns twins?” queried Lillooet of Wigwam. From across the room, Tabby and Tamara did appear to be identical in nature.

“They’re only cousins, actually. Tabby will tell you that she has the lovelier eye color- lavender.” Wigwam grinned at his eating companion. “Your eyes are extraordinary... the dappled shade of a meadow brook with the sun sparkling off the ripples.”

“Why, Wigwam, how debonair!” Lillooet tapped his hoof playfully while batting her eyelashes. “I’ll bet you compliment all the mares that extravagantly.”

“Only the prettiest ones,” he admitted, enjoying the opportunity to flirt with the mare. Tabby had been so right to lecture him on his overly possessive attitude of Chocolate Chip.... although, come to think of it, that chocolate brown mare’s blue eyes had hidden highlights in them that erupted into veritable fireworks when she was about to be truly kissed... Wigwam shook his head to bring himself back to the moment. “The strawberry-patterned mare is Sugarberry, Vanguard’s wife; you may have noticed the resemblance between father and son.”

“So she’s the author,” Lillooet murmured. “I’ve noticed her books on the shelves, but I must admit that I seldom read that style of writing.”

Wigwam laughed. “Sugarberry has a romantic nature, not an historical one. You’ll like her, though. Come, if you’re finished, we can go meet the girls right now.”

Sugarberry warmed to Lillooet immediately; anyone who made a fuss over her son was automatically accepted; and Lillooet had not only commented on how cute Banderol was but had drawn him into her forelegs as well. And learning that Lillooet had already met her husband and been issued a dinner invitation, Sugarberry quickly cemented those plans for the following evening, including the others as well although Tamara and Philippe had a previous engagement. After Wigwam had escorted Lillooet from the shop, Tabby gloated. “I told you my talk would do him some good, Sug. Wigwam isn’t lamenting over Chocolate Chip at all any more.”

“At least, not as far as we can see,” Sugarberry cautiously agreed.

* * *

Walking home on the bustling streets of New Pony, Chocolate Chip and Xavier were headed to their apartments at the end of the workday, comparing notes on how hectic the day had been.

“Fabia turned the entire Grand Heights analysis over to me; she said that she has too much to do on getting the Radcliff presentation ready; and as Tarn is still studying that data, he’s no help to me at all. I’ll have to work tonight to get some plan of action lined up.” The brown mare nodded toward her attache case.

“You should leave your work at the office, Chocolate Chip.”

“That won’t get the job done. Besides, I like being busy.”

“All work and no play...” Xavier grinned. “To prevent you from becoming dull, why don’t the two of us go out to dinner tomorrow night? I’ve been wanting to try that new restaurant over on Seventh Avenue.”

“Are you sure? I’ve heard it’s awfully expensive.”

“That’s my worry, now, isn’t it? Will you join me?”

The stallion looked at Chocolate Chip with such an aspect of entreaty that the mare laughed. “Okay, if you want to blow your entire week’s worth of wages on one meal, who am I to deny you?”

“Great!” Xavier said, his smile attesting to his sincere pleasure at her acceptance of his plan.

Chocolate Chip herself felt comfortably pleased herself.

* * *

Sugarberry and Vanguard welcomed Wigwam and Lillooet and Tabby and Thomas to their home for the planned dinner. Agatha and Hubert, Tabby’s parents, were included as well, Hubert having experience with many of the ancient cultures of Ponyland in which Lillooet would have an interest. Gravitating to Agatha, Faline and Banderol were ensured of their fair allotment of attention, Faline being perfectly willing to share Grandma with the younger colt. After settling the guests in the living room, Sugarberry slipped out to the kitchen to pop the dinner rolls into the oven and to check on the other dishes. Tabby trailed in after her.

“Need any help?” the pink unicorn asked.

“The napkins,” Sugarberry said. “I was on the way to the dining room with them when the doorbell rang, and I set them somewhere...” Both mares looked around the kitchen.

“Here they are, in Banderol’s high chair,” Tabby noted. “And why does Wigwam rate the dining room instead of the kitchen?”

“It’s Lillooet who rates the dining room,” Sugarberry grinned, fanning away the blast of hot air as she opened the oven door. “Besides, the room needed a good cleaning, and this forced the issue.”

While Tabby disappeared on her errand, Sugarberry ascertained that everything was in readiness as soon as the biscuits were properly browned. She was getting a pitcher of milk out of the refrigerator when Tabby returned.

“Where’d the pretty flowers come from?”

“Vanguard brought them to me. This dinner was his idea, and he felt sorry for the extra work involved- although he did most of the cleaning.” A buzzer sounded. “Well, that’s it,” Sugarberry said, pulling the dinner rolls out of the oven and transferring them to a basket. “If you’ll set these on the table, I’ll go fetch the hungry ponies.”

* * *

“I’ll never eat sushi again!” declared Chocolate Chip as she and Xavier left the restaurant; a shiver ran through the mare just thinking about it.

“I enjoyed it,” chuckled Xavier. “I expected a more cosmopolitan outlook from you, Chocolate Chip.”

“I like my fish cooked.”

“What about the rest of the dinner, though. It was very good, wasn’t it?” coaxed the stallion.

Realizing that she was being petty, Chocolate Chip flashed a smile at her companion. “It was excellent. The decor was astounding as well. I truly enjoyed our evening, Xavier. Thanks for including me.”

“I wouldn’t have gone without you, you know. It wouldn’t have been much fun by myself.”

“Don’t you have a special someone in New Pony?” queried Chocolate Chip, casting a shy glance at the stallion. She had often wondered about Xavier’s circumstances. They usually talked of nothing but their jobs and their hometowns.

“There’s a mare at work I enjoy talking with, but she’s dating some executive from across the street.”

“And back home?”

“Let’s just say there was potential there, but I’m committed to my life in New Pony now. Mona doesn’t like the city. I see her on the holidays when I get back to Happy Hollow.”

“I’ll be going back to Dream Valley next month for my brother’s wedding,” confided Chocolate Chip. “It’ll be my first trip back since I came to New Pony.”

“Let me warn you- you’re going to feel out of sync when you get there. Subtle changes that the locals have adjusted to without realizing it will seem like major transformations to you. And personalities that have developed will make you feel as if you don’t even know some of your old friends any more.”

As Xavier went on giving examples of some of the shocks he received upon arriving back in Happy Hollow, Chocolate Chip’s mind wandered to what she could expect when she went back to Dream Valley. Would Wishbone and Garnet have edged her out of their lives by now? Would Fern and Toby seem like strangers? And what of Sugarberry and Vanguard? Had they found that their lives were far better without her presence in the house and would they resent her intrusion? And how would Wigwam react to her? Had she succeeded in turning him away from her to find a new match, someone who would be willing to live her life under Wigwam’s care in the confines of Dream Valley?

“Chocolate Chip? You’re home.”

Hearing her name, Chocolate Chip realized that she and Xavier had indeed made it to her apartment. She grinned sheepishly. “I was miles away.”

“I’ve been a bore, I’ll admit, rambling on about people and places you know nothing of.”

“I’m the one who spaced out,” Chocolate Chip said, putting the key into the lock and swinging open the door. Turning to face Xavier, she smiled. “I did have a wonderful time with you this evening.”

“Regardless of the sushi?”

“Forget the sushi,” Chocolate Chip commanded. “I just remembered that I received a box of cookies from Sugarberry in today’s mail and haven’t had time yet to break into them. How about a cookie and a glass of milk before you go?”

“Are any of them chocolate chip?”

Rolling her eyes, the young mare grinned. “If only you knew how many times...”

“I’m sorry I said that. Forgive me?”

“Yes, but to show your sincerity, you have no choice but to stay for a snack.”

Xavier grinned. “My choice exactly.”

* * *

“Your friends are very nice ponies,” Lillooet granted as she and Wigwam walked away from the house on Fifth Street. “I enjoyed my time with them.”

“They enjoyed your company as well,” Wigwam smiled. “As did I.”

“I think I’ll miss Dream Valley when I leave two days from now,” Lillooet confessed.

“You’ll always be welcome to return.”

Lillooet was silent for a time before she responded to that softly voiced invitation. It would be rather entertaining to aggravate Hawkley with her presence. And Wigwam seemed to be a lonely stallion, but lonely for whom? It would be intriguing to discover who had wounded his heart and offer some aid in healing it.

No! It was not worth getting involved in some entanglement at this point in her career; and, besides, he was not even her type. The mare sighed. “I’ve got commitments to honor that require me to move on, Wigwam; although, for the first time in my life, I regret not having put down roots.”

“It’s not too late yet.”

“I’ll definitely give the idea some thought while I work on my next couple of assignments.” She grinned at the stallion. “How did this conversation get so pensive?”

“Maybe it’s the effect of the moonlight,” Wigwam suggested, waving a hoof skyward.

“Or the company.” The two ponies’ gazes locked briefly before they both lapsed into a cognitive silence.

Arriving at their destination, Wigwam accompanied Lillooet up to her hotel room. At the doorway, they faced one another. “How will you be spending the next couple of days?” Wigwam asked.

“Teepee and Fetish are going to help me dig through the files of the historical society tomorrow, and my last day here will be spent absorbing the spirit of the Native Pony site; I find it’s helpful to connect with the hidden aura of a place before I start to write about it.”

“Maybe I could bring a picnic lunch out to the site, if it wouldn’t be an imposition.”

“No, it wouldn’t be an imposition; but Teepee has already invited me to join him for lunch at his camp; I’ll be leaving from there.”

For a moment, Wigwam felt as if he had received a curt dismissal; but there was something drawing him into the depths of those blue eyes that was perversely inviting. What he wouldn’t give to be lost in a particular pair of blue eyes that had once brightened only for him. Before he quite knew what was happening, he found himself kissing the mare before him.

He found it severely disappointing. It was not Chocolate Chip.

“Good night, Lillooet. I look forward to reading your article.”

He barely noticed the amusement in the mare’s eyes as he turned to make a hasty retreat.

* * *

In New Pony, Xavier was browsing through Chocolate Chip’s music CD’s while waiting for the coffee. “You have everything ever put out by Philippe; you must be quite a fan of his.”

“He married a mare from Dream Valley- and they make their home there- so he’s like our hometown hero.”

“How do you explain all the Native Pony stuff?” Xavier asked, indicating a number of cases with the native artwork.

He looked up at Chocolate Chip in time to see a blush darken her cheeks. “Wigwam thought I... well, it’s beautiful music, very reflective. And Dream Valley was and still is influenced by the Native Pony culture.” She busied herself rearranging the cookies on a plate.

“I’m beginning to think that I’ve missed something by never visiting the place.”

“Well, you could always accompany me to my brother’s wedding.”

Xavier moved forward to help the mare with the tray of food and drink she was wielding. “I just might do that,” he grinned.

As the two ponies sat on the couch enjoying the taste of home, they talked of many things, both grateful for the other’s company. When Chocolate Chip finally realized just how late it was getting, nonetheless, she smiled at Xavier. “This was my best day yet in New Pony, but I think we’d better save some things to discuss for another time.”

“You’re very comfortable to talk with; I hope we can do this another time.” Xavier stood up and offered a hoof to Chocolate Chip, assisting her to her hooves. He did not release his hold on her, however. “And you can tell your friend back in Dream Valley that her cookies were as sweet as you, Chocolate Chip.”

Before Chocolate Chip could respond, he met her lips with his. For a moment, the mare was stunned into inaction; but suddenly her heart cried out to her that this was not Wigwam- and she, therefore, wanted no part of it. Bracing a hoof against Xavier’s chest, she pushed against the stallion, abruptly ending the kiss. She met his questioning gaze with a wry smile. “I’m sorry.”

The stallion responded to his rejection gracefully. “It never hurts to get knocked down a peg or two,” he grinned. “You’ve nothing to feel sorry for.”

“You’re my best friend in New Pony; I don’t want to lose you.”

“Fat chance of that happening. Let’s both forget the kiss. I’ll see you Monday morning as usual.” He brushed her cheek with his hoof and was gone.

Chocolate Chip stood where she was for a long time after Xavier left, trying to come to grips with her emotions. She had made a wonderful friend in New Pony, and she looked upon him as an anchor in this city that sometimes frightened her. So why could she not accept an innocent kiss from him?

Her inmost heart had betrayed her, bringing Wigwam’s memory alive for her after weeks of trying to relegate him to the recesses of her mind. Her busy schedule at work had gone a long way in keeping her thoughts from him, but it was her feelings that had refused to release the touch of him... the look of him... the sound of him... the scent of him... and Xavier’s attempted kiss had exploded her sensibilities to just how much she missed the orange stallion.

Chocolate Chip closed her eyes. She was living her dream, self-sufficient in New Pony with an occupation she loved and for which she was getting well-paid. She was carrying more than her fair share of the workload at Worth Hydroshed Firkins; without her, Fabia would never be able to meet a deadline. Her apartment was small but cozy; she enjoyed the freedom living alone allowed her. If she had married Wigwam, she would have felt compelled to take a job in Dream Valley that would not have fulfilled her aspirations and would have denied her the opportunity to become successful on her own merits.

But I would have been loved! her soul cried out.

A tear slipped down Chocolate Chip’s face, but she hastily brushed it away. No, she would not allow herself to become a namby-pamby because of this traitorous nostalgia. She was living her life as she wanted to live it; she should be feeling proud rather than so very, very empty. Then why could she not check the flow of tears that came unbidden like a springtime flood?

* * *

Finally, things are back to normal, Bittersweet thought to herself as she labored her way up a steep incline on her way to the Native Pony site. Lillooet was gone, leaving several stallions’ hearts bruised but not broken; and Wigwam had taken back his responsibility for keeping the work-ponies on the Native Dreams construction in line- and more power to him. She was sick and tired of trying to reason with stubborn, opinionated stallions who could only see things as they wanted to see them.

Bittersweet frowned. Some things always stayed the same. “And Teepee could not care less about me,” she griped out loud.

The unicorn brightened to think of Teepee’s expression when he found that she was the messenger he was expecting. Digger had returned to Dream Valley from a few hours work at the site with a request for Domino from Teepee to deliver some specialized equipment to the site. Fetish had been with Domino at the time and had volunteered to take the items to Teepee; but a stop first at the Native Dreams kiosk at the mall to tell his wife of his plans had proven his undoing as Dreamcatcher reminded him that he was expected to accept Red Fox’s delivery of wares that afternoon; and only he- Fetish- could determine the quality of the never before offered merchandise.

Bittersweet, when she had finished packaging a customer’s purchase, had found both her sister’s and her brother-in-law’s gazes on her; and without giving her a choice, they had strapped her with the errand of delivering the supplies to Teepee.

The day was lovely for a walk, so Bittersweet did not mind the trek. Butterflies flitted around her, birds serenaded her, rabbits peered closely at her, and a warm, humid breeze teased her tresses. The passing miles also allowed her to assess her time in Dream Valley since her arrival in March.

She could not fault her employment- she loved working with her sister and handling the paperwork for the business. She was not entirely happy about living with Dreamcatcher and Fetish, but her presence in their home did provide a convenient nanny for Tamarack- and the reason Dreamcatcher needed help was the demands of the active toddler. She had amassed a diverse array of friends- there was no one she had met in Dream Valley in whom she had not been able to find some good quality (Lillooet did not count; she was only visiting). There was only one deficiency that she could determine- she had not found a stallion who could steal her heart away.

No, that’s not true, Bittersweet chided herself. She had found a stallion, but he did not reciprocate her feelings. Even worse, the feelings he did have toward her were all negative. She had never been so shut out by anyone. It just was not fair!

She was going to enjoy their meeting today, however. Over the miles, she had determined that she would be all that was pleasant, just to aggravate the stallion. Having come to the realization that she had been paying back all his cold shoulders in kind, she had now decided that she would be cloyingly charming- not that she expected it to get her anywhere. She was sure it would infuriate him; and at this point, that was the best she could hope for- salve her wounded pride, so to speak.

Her mind had been so busy that Bittersweet arrived at her destination before she realized it and practically stumbled into the neatly defined depression that Teepee was working in.

“Watch it!” Teepee grumbled as loose soil that Bittersweet had kicked up began to trickle down his back. Looking up with a scowl and seeing who had interrupted him, his face darkened even further. “Oh, it’s you.” A quick glance around showed up no other ponies, so he asked, “Where’s Wigwam?”

Bittersweet gritted her teeth. This stallion was infuriating! But remembering her resolve to give him honey for vinegar, she bubbled, “Good afternoon, Teepee. It’s so nice to see you again, too.”

Teepee squatted back and looked at the mare through squinted eyes. “This is a social call?”

With a trill of laughter, Bittersweet smiled. “On such a lovely day to surround myself by nature, I was chosen to bring you the equipment you asked for.” She slipped the backpack off her shoulder and retrieved the tools Fetish had given her.

Standing to take possession of the requested items, Teepee scanned the area around them again. “You didn’t come out here alone, did you?”

The insufferable stallion had not even thanked her for her efforts, and Bittersweet found it difficult to maintain her candied demeanor. “As everyone else had other obligations to attend to, I didn’t have much choice.” She returned the stallion’s scowl, then flounced off to make a cursory inspection of what had been done at the site since her last visit. It was only then that she realized that there were no other ponies working with Teepee. “Where is everyone?” she queried. Not even Clever Clover or Buttercrunch was in sight.

“It’s like you said- everyone else had other obligations.” The stallion had come out of his dig and was fussing with one of the tools Bittersweet had brought, but he looked up and caught her eye for a brief moment before returning his scrutiny to the calipers in his hoof. The brooding gaze of the stallion sent a thrill through Bittersweet that was quickly squelched as Teepee added brusquely, “Thanks for bringing this stuff, but I gotta get back to work now.” He grabbed up all the equipment and headed for a point some yards away.

So this was it? She was dismissed? The two of them were alone in this isolated valley, and he could not bring himself to be even mildly civil? Bittersweet bristled. Where had she gone wrong with this exasperating stallion? She was positive he had not taken her in dislike when they were newly acquainted. Both Wigwam and Teepee had gone out of their way to make her feel welcome; but while her friendship with Wigwam had grown through the development of Native Dreams, the ties between her and Teepee had frazzled, unfurled, and snapped.

Why did she like the stallion so much if he did not return her feelings? Bittersweet’s gaze rested on the blue pony as he worked, his muscles rippling beneath his skin. He was definitely not a romantic flowers-and-candy sort of stallion. On the contrary, he was rough, caustic, almost surly; but he had a wry sense of humor and a blunt, practical view of life that Bittersweet appreciated. He had traveled extensively, affording him a wide variety of experiences that gave him a temerarious attitude that she found appealing. She was sure he would be a stalwart friend, if one could get through the brick wall he had erected around himself.

As Bittersweet watched the stallion at work, it dawned on her that his job would proceed much more efficiently if he had someone to help him; as it was, his measurements were being interrupted by the necessity to record the results on paper. The provoking stallion was too stubborn to ask her for help, preferring to make a simple task difficult.

Marching to his location, Bittersweet came to an abrupt halt and tapped her hoof derisively. “Two could accomplish twice as much in half the time.”

Coolly, Teepee looked up from jotting some numbers on his chart. “Oh, are you still here?”

With a return look that could turn a geyser into ice, Bittersweet grabbed the clipboard away from Teepee. “You tell me the dimensions, I’ll write them down.”

“You wouldn’t know which column to put them in.”

“I’m a quick learner.” She sat down, the pencil posed and ready, a no-nonsense expression on her face.

Teepee met her mutinous stare for a few moments, then shrugged and went back to his measuring.

As the two ponies set about their task, few words were spoken other than the numbers Teepee conveyed and an occasional clarification on Bittersweet’s part. As the time passed, however, Bittersweet began asking questions about the artifacts that they were working with; and Teepee progressed from unwilling, abrupt replies to animated, full-blown lectures with even an intermittent smile thrown in for good measure. Bittersweet was so engrossed in the work and the instruction that she herself did not notice the camaraderie that had sprung up between them; neither did she realize that her natural response to the stallion- with none of the animosity or the artificiality that she had so often adopted in the past- put her in a very becoming and irresistible light.

They were both laughing over a story Teepee had shared when a loud rumble echoed out of the sky. Looking up in startled wonder, they discerned that storm clouds had moved across the valley and a downpour was imminent.

“Where did that come from?” asked Teepee, unaware of just how much time had passed in the enjoyable exchange with Bittersweet. He quickly began gathering up his supplies while Bittersweet hugged the clipboard to her as a gust of wind swept down upon them. “Run for the tipi before you get soaked!” ordered Teepee just as the first heavy drops of rain started pelting them.

The tipi, an improvement to the site donated by Fetish and Dreamcatcher, was being used by Teepee as a summer home, allowing him an easy commute. Set on a level area overlooking the work in progress, the tipi stood as sentinel, a silent testimonial of the Native Ponies who had once lived in this valley. The two ponies raced through the onslaught of the sudden downpour to gain entry, and Bittersweet stood gasping and dripping as Teepee stopped in the doorway to survey the sky. “It won’t last long,” he drawled. “The sky’s already blue to the west.”

“That may be, but your home is going to be flooded if I don’t use a towel on this mane.” Bittersweet tossed her head, sending droplets flying through the air.

Teepee grinned. “You do have the look of a drowned rat about you.” He crossed the space inside the tipi and grabbed a towel for each of them. The next couple of minutes were spend sopping up the worst of the rain while the heavens continued to douse the land outside.

When Bittersweet felt comfortable again, she noted that Teepee was once again in the doorway and moved to join him. As suddenly as the shower had come it, it had now ended.

“I told you it wouldn’t last long,” Teepee bragged, stepping out into the wet world. The last word was barely out of his mouth when another deluge dumped from an overhead cloud, soaking the stallion once more. Bittersweet could not contain her laughter as she stayed dry in the enclosure. But not for long.

The stallion, enjoying himself immensely, reached out and grabbed the mare, pulling her into the downpour with him. Like two foals, they joined hooves and circled in the rain, their faces uplifted to catch the refreshing water. Bittersweet had never been so happy; this was living, to be doing something crazy with the stallion she idolized. Even if they never shared another moment together, this one would live forever in her mind.

Satisfied with the events it had precipitated, the rain once again ended in a deafening silence and a radiant beam of sunshine. Teepee and Bittersweet stopped their dancing, but Teepee did not release his hold of the mare. He found her beautiful with her long tangerine mane plastered against her mocha body, her periwinkle blue eyes sparkling like precious jewels. In the silence and the sunshine, he leaned toward her as she met him halfway, and they shared a special kiss.

Bittersweet could have died on the spot, she was so happy. With her eyes closed, she lingered over the closeness of the stallion even after their lips had parted. Through the freshly washed air, she heard his voice as he whispered, “You’ve bewitched me.”

With a smile that spoke of heaven, Bittersweet opened her eyes... and gasped to see such intense anger and hatred directed at her that she could not breathe.

“You despicable, manipulating wench!” the stallion snarled. “I never want to see you again!” With a look of pure venom, he turned and strode away.

The black clouds rolled eastward and the sun gained dominance, but the tears streaming down Bittersweet’s cheeks bespoke of a more intense storm than nature could have imagined.

* * *

Stumbling through her first part of the trek back to Dream Valley because of the blinding tears, Bittersweet was exhausted when she reached the city limits and, craving companionship to sooth her rattled nerves, sought sanctuary in Wigwam’s office at the casino. She found the stallion alone and sank into a chair by his desk.

“Good grief!” Wigwam choked as he looked up from his paperwork and saw the distraught mare. Her eyes were clouded with tears, her face pale except for the dark area under her eyes, her mane was tousled like it had not been combed for days, and her spirit seemed beaten. “What’s wrong?” He jumped to his hooves and came around to pull her into his forelegs, smoothing her hair as he held her close, waiting for the newest barrage of tears to dissipate. “What happened, Bittersweet. Talk to me.”

The tears stopped, but the mare refused to lift her head. She needed Wigwam’s strength right now, for she knew she would be unable to stand without it. The stallion allowed her time to compose herself, all the while dreading to hear what disaster had occurred to send the mare into such a disastrous state. With one foreleg remaining steadily around her, he managed to notify Ceara to hold all his calls and prevent any interruptions. Then, as if handling a small foal, he settled the mare into the chair once more and crouched before her.

“You’ve got to talk to me, Bittersweet. I can’t help you if I don’t know what’s wrong.”

“I...” Tears threatened again with the effort to speak. The mare closed her eyes and gulped, trying to regain her sensibilities. She grasped Wigwam’s hoof as if it was a lifeline. “I don’t know what happened,” she quavered.

“Who’s responsible for setting you off this way?” Wigwam growled, unable to picture any event that would reduce the normally dominant personality to jelly... and vowing his revenge on the perpetrator.

“Teepee,” Bittersweet managed to whisper.

“My brother did this to you?” Wigwam roared disbelievingly.

Bittersweet flinched at his tone, but she responded. “He hates me.”

Taking a deep breath to steady his pulse, Wigwam prodded. “Tell me what happened.”

With a number of painful pauses, Bittersweet was able to stutter through the events of the afternoon, giving Wigwam a disjointed but insightful impression of what had occurred between the two ponies. Knowing full well of Bittersweet’s infatuation with his brother, Wigwam could understand how she would have been so terribly wounded by Teepee’s sudden and harsh rejection. What he could not understand is how his brother could be so ill-mannered and unfeeling as to subject the mare to such caddish behavior. His older brother was not known for his sensitivity, but neither was he a complete boor.

“Maybe you misinterpreted what he said,” he lamely surmised.

“No one could have misinterpreted the disgust in his eyes,” Bittersweet returned. “For some reason, he finds me completely distasteful.”

“Then why did he kiss you?”

Her eyes filled with grief, Bittersweet touched her hoof to her lips. “I don’t know,” she whispered. “I really don’t know.”

* * *

Having allowed Wigwam to fetch her some nourishment while she tidied herself, Bittersweet nonetheless refused the stallion’s offer to walk her home. Having washed her tear-stained face and combed her tangled hair, she felt a bit more like her old self; and by allowing her heartache to be replaced with anger, she was able to assume a confident air in front of Wigwam, even though her heart was in shreds. With one final strengthening hug from the stallion, the mare said goodbye and headed for the cabin in the Dark Forest. Her head drooping, she did not notice that Teepee had arrived back in town as well.

Seeing Bittersweet leaving the casino did nothing to assuage the guilt Teepee felt over what had transpired at the dig site. The mare looked as if she had been put through the ringer, and Teepee knew he was responsible. He watched her until she was out of sight, abhorring himself for taking liberties with his brother’s girlfriend.

The afternoon had not been easy for the stallion. Having Bittersweet appear in front of him as if he had conjured her up out of his dreams had unsettled him. He had found the mare desirable from the first time he had met her, but Bittersweet had gravitated to Wigwam, spending what seemed to the jealous stallion an inordinate amount of time in Wigwam’s company. Those two shared an easygoing relationship that spoke of a deep and abiding respect and admiration for one another. Teepee would have given all his material possessions to have such a friendship with the mare, but he refused to step between his brother and Bittersweet. Instead, he brooded and banked his smouldering discontent from a distance, hiding his true feelings behind a mask of indifference and setting himself apart by burying himself in his work at the Native Pony site.

To have Bittersweet throw herself into his world as she had done this day had preyed on his sensibilities until he could no longer refute the deep yearning he had for her. To talk with her, to laugh with her, to feel the touch of her was too much for him; and when the chance had presented itself, he had capitulated like some green colt who did not have an ounce of decency or common sense. He had taken his brother’s Juliet into his forelegs and kissed her; and even worse, she had responded to him as if Wigwam did not exist. It was a double travesty with both of them at fault for relegating Wigwam to the furthest niches of their minds while they shared a kiss that could only be called earthshaking. Bittersweet had bewitched him and drawn him over the line of proper behavior. He would never be able to face her again.

Teepee also knew he would never be able to face his brother again with this guilt hanging between them. It occurred to him that Bittersweet herself might have admitted the afternoon’s travesty to him, which would explain the hung-dog attitude she had displayed on leaving. He could not blame Wigwam if he had reacted in anger and disappointment to hear that his feelings had been so utterly ignored by two ponies whom he should have been able to trust. Teepee strengthened his resolve and marched into Wigwam’s office to bare his soul and take the consequences, bracing himself to face the possibility that he might have to leave Dream Valley to avoid the future pain of seeing Wigwam and Bittersweet together.

Finding Wigwam staring out the window with a sullen expression on his face, Teepee was sure that harsh words had been exchanged between the stallion and Bittersweet. He also knew that he was right in the middle of all the repugnance and despair that Wigwam must be feeling. Teepee cleared his throat. “About what happened...”

“I heard,” Wigwam said, turning to him with a scowl that reminded him of their father’s countenance when he had been preparing to upbraid them for some prank or another. “What do you think you were trying to prove?”

“I lost it for a moment; Bittersweet looked so...”

“She’s a beautiful pony; I’ll be the first to admit that. However, she’s not to be trifled with.”

The kiss had not been a trifle. “I take full responsibility.”

“You should; she was devastated.”

“I’m sorry; it won’t happen again.”

“No. I expect it won’t.” Wigwam’s gaze was like a piercing dart as he tried to get a handle on his brother’s inner drives. “She wants to settle down with a home and a family, you know.”

“You’ve asked her, then?”

“Of course. We’ve discussed it, anyway.” Wigwam grinned, remembering some of the topics the two of them had broached in between their haranguing over Native Dreams.. “There isn’t much that girl won’t talk about.”

So it was true. Wigwam was planning a future with Bittersweet. “I saw her leave here; she looked depressed. You didn’t come down hard on her, did you?”

“Why would I? You’re the one at fault.”

“I’ve admitted that, and I said I’m sorry.”

“You should be telling Bittersweet that, not me.” He stared at his brother a moment. “Why did you run out on her?”

“Why did I...” Teepee was distraught. “Because I came to my senses, that’s why.”

“I’d say you lost any sense you ever had.”

“What? You think I’d take advantage of the situation with the mare you intend to marry?”

Wigwam looked confused. “What has Chocolate Chip got to do with this conversation?’

“Chocolate Chip? She cut you off, remember? You said a minute ago that you and Bittersweet were contemplating marriage.”

“Whoa!” Wigwam’s hooves came up as if he could physically block those words. “I said no such thing. We were talking about Bittersweet wanting to marry you.”

“Me?” The conversation was proving too much for Teepee. “But you and...”

“Bittersweet and I are great friends and I hope we can remain so, but it’s you she’s been trying to impress. I’ll always love Chocolate Chip.”

This was not making sense to Teepee. “Bittersweet’s not of romantic interest to you?”


Teepee still was not convinced. “You’re with her every time I turn around.”

“Native Dreams has been a big undertaking for both of us, and it does have a demanding share of business concerns to be addressed; of course, we’re together often... for business reasons. Not to say that Bittersweet isn’t more than that... I value her friendship. But her heart, big brother, is pining for some notice from you. Why do you think she was out at the site today?”

Sitting in gaping bewilderment, Teepee tried to make sense of this latest conversation with his brother. Had he really been so blind, so misguided, that he had assumed a relationship between Wigwam and Bittersweet that had never existed? Thick-headed he might be, but even Teepee could eventually see the truth. He jumped up, raking a hoof through his mane. “Do you know where she was headed when she left here?” He had a lot of explaining to do.

“To Dreamcatcher’s cabin.”

Teepee was already out the door.

* * *

Moving dejectedly, Bittersweet was not yet home when Teepee caught sight of her; he chided himself once again for having cast the normally vibrant mare into the doldrums with his show of self-righteous behavior after the stolen kiss. If he had declared his love for her right then and there, he could have avoided this tangled and melancholic aftermath.

Leaving the path, Bittersweet headed to a grove of low-growth trees that edged the Dark Forest, and Teepee followed her. Fearing that the mare would lash out at him when she realized he was near, Teepee kept his presence from the mare until she appeared more approachable.

Under the shelter of the trees, her mood seemed to lighten somewhat as she brushed her hoof over the lacy heads of the white Queen Anne’s Lace and stopped to listen to a bird song. Teepee was pleased to find that Mother Nature was having a soothing effect on the mare’s senses and calculated that it would now be safe to announce himself.

Bittersweet had just picked a stem of bergamont and buried her nose in the minty fragrance it emitted when Teepee stepped forward, cracking a twig as he did so. The mare whirled around; and in a blink of an eye, all her new-found composure evaporated. Seeing who it was that shared her haven, she hit him with a barrage of accusatory diatribe, tossing the flower she had been holding so tenderly at him with undisguised wrath.

“You despicable, beastly, abominable monster. Did you remember some more insults you could heap on me? But no matter what you think of me, I think you are the most disagreeable, lamentable, perverse excuse for a pony that I’ve ever seen.”

Catching the flower that came at him, Teepee agreed. “So true. That’s why I came to apologize.”

In the process of taking a breath so she could further expound on the stallion’s extensive repertoire of faults, Bittersweet choked at the stallion’s words. She narrowed her eyes and spat, “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Infuriatingly, Teepee grinned and made himself comfortable on a granite rock amidst the undergrowth. “It means I was a complete stooge and have come to ask for mercy.” He extended the flower back to her as a peace offering, but she ignored it, wondering what the stallion was after.

“You expect me to believe you’re sincere after what you said to me?”

“Apologies are usually rendered after a misunderstanding, and I messed-up big-time.” He sniffed the aromatic flower she had refused, then winked at her. “Apologies are worthless if they’re not accepted.”

The mood of the stallion was so altered from the aftermath of the kiss that the mare unwillingly unbent a bit. “If it eases your conscience, I’ll accept it; but it doesn’t change the fact that I think you’re a detestable low-life.”

With a show of having been wrongly maligned, Teepee breathed deeply and slowly exhaled; he stared at Bittersweeet with those brooding eyes. Finally he spoke. “You may not be aware of one of the reasons I returned to Dream Valley.”

“I wish you’d stayed away!”

“Do you, sugar?”

Thoroughly miffed at his using such a familiar term with her, Bittersweet frowned, regaining all her former contempt, but Teepee kept talking.

“I’d reached a point in my life where I wanted to settle down with a wife and start a family.”

“Why are you telling me this now? I don’t care what you’re about.”

“I want you to understand where I was coming from this afternoon. I did find someone, Bittersweet, that I could share my life with.”

The mare flinched to hear the stallion admit that he had already made a choice as to whom his wife would be. That proved that the kiss had just been a whim when his heart belonged to someone else. Well, she would show him that it no longer bothered her. “Congratulations... but I sympathize with the mare.”

Grinning again, Teepee was not thwarted. Had not Wigwam informed him of Bittersweet’s love? “The mare may need your sympathy with the likes of me, I’ll grant you. However, she has a charitable nature; she’s also pleasant and smart and proficient... and she’s dashed pretty, too. In fact, she’s perfect for me.”

Bittersweet found the description too close to the words she had used to describe Lillooet to Wigwam. Under her breath, she muttered, “Lillooet, I’ll wager.”

His sharp ears catching the name, Teepee chuckled. “Oh, no, Bittersweet. Not Lillooet.... someone much closer to home.”

Her curiosity now captured, Bittersweet took a step closer to the stallion. “Which one of Dream Valley’s beauties should I send my condolences to?”

Teepee was slow in answering; but when he did, he looked at Bittersweet with such regard that her heart felt as if it had done a somersault. Softly, he asked, “Did you ever fall in love with someone who was already in love with someone else?”

Averting her eyes from his searching gaze, Bittersweet mumbled, “Maybe I have.” Then, realizing what his words implied, she gasped, “You’ve fallen in love with someone who is already committed to someone else?” To the mare’s way of thinking, that would be more painful than Teepee’s rejection of her, and she truly did feel sorry for him to have gotten himself entangled in such a predicament.

“Well, that’s how I saw the situation. You and Wigwam did spend an inordinate amount of time together; and more than once, I found you in his forelegs.”

Staring at Teepee as if he had suddenly started to spout Furbish, Bittersweet shook her head in confusion. “What have Wigwam and I got to do with your troubles-in-love?”

You are my perfect mate, Bittersweet.”

Bittersweet stood in open-mouthed perplexity, her mind spinning. “You thought I was in love with Wigwam?”

“Stupid of me- Wasn’t it?- when I’m obviously the better stallion.” Teepee smiled at the mare’s disbelief. “I tried to stay detached from the two of you because I couldn’t bear to see Wigwam with the girl I loved; and when I had the chance today to hold you in my forelegs for a change, I couldn’t help but kiss you; but then I felt like a complete heal because you were my brother’s girl. That’s why I said those horrid things to you.” He stood then, putting himself face-to-face with the mare. Once more, he extended the flower to her. “Forgive me, please?”

“Of course, I forgive you,” she smiled, accepting the return of the spicy flower. “But I still think you’re the most thick-skulled, provoking, irksome stallion I’ve ever known to make such a stupid, idiotic...”

The stallion had moved closer during this latest tirade of his beloved, and he stopped her flow of words in the most convenient manner at his disposal.

It proved very effective.

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